Many of my students claim that they find it difficult to argue with a good number of my blogs, in spite of the fact I strongly encourage them to do so. I would like to believe one reason it may be difficult to argue is due to my practice of anticipating objections and addressing those antithetical arguments first and foremost…while making it very clear what I am NOT saying.
This blog will continue with that strategy and quite intentional tradition.
So today I argue that we live in an age of absurd politically correct language—that is reaching near ridiculous levels—and that I most definitely do NOT serve on the politically correct language committee. I also believe our (the universal “our”) collective linguistic sensibilities are far too easily offended.
It is therefore now imperative to make it clear what I am NOT saying when I suggest you all just need to relax when it comes to the use of, for some, emotionally charged words.
I am not suggesting that we use intentional hurtful language toward anyone or any group. I am not suggesting that if we know a word or label to be hurtful to someone to use it. I am not suggesting that all words are appropriate for all occasions. I AM suggesting that we should use words, labels and phrases that a person or group prefers to be addressed.
And should we screw that up? Chill out…we actually have real problems in the world. Like REAL problems.
Take the issue of one’s name. When I was a child most referred to me as “Jimmy.” When I started to get older, I transitioned for a few years to James, then, circa high school, I was officially Jim. Upon reaching mid-life crisis circa mid-forties, in a futile effort to reconnect with anything youth, I elected to go back to my roots…and requested to be called, once again, Jimmy. You may think it silly that I now prefer this moniker, yet who the hell cares what you think? Just call me what I prefer regardless of the reason I prefer. And guess what? I will call you whatever it is you prefer as well…no verbal skin off Jimmy’s back.
If your name is Norman yet you prefer to be called Bubba, I am so down.
This is called common courtesy and makes the village a slightly better place.
Now, that said, should you opt to call me something other than Jimmy…I really do not give a shit.
I realize it is only a damn word and in the grand scheme of things, means relatively nothing.
At the more macro level, the problem is our acceptable phrases and monikers are changing at light speed and we cannot always keep up with the right term at the right time—so put your word guns down language police, not everyone checks in with PC committee when they wake up each morning.
What I am arguing is that we (once again, the universal “we”) place WAY too much emphasis on the role of language, as if words are some sort of sacred cows and possess an inherent meaning all their own that are worthy of respect…not.
Here are five basic observations about words:
- Words are arbitrary, subjective and constantly subject to change. According to Linguist and one time US Senator, now dead, SI Hayakawa, the term broadcast used to be an agricultural term referring to a farmer planting the fields, “broadly casting” the seed in the ground. Ready? Nice used to mean foolish, silly used to mean worthy and blessed, awful used to mean “in awe of,” naughty used to mean having nothing, clue used to mean a ball of yarn, guy used to mean a frightful figure (ok…maybe a bad example), egregious used to mean distinguished, flirt used to mean flicking something away, while sick used to mean being ill and some of us old farts still might use it this way. How can we trust the meaning of a word when it can change meaning at any time and we can never be absolutely certain of the intended meaning behind it?
- The only meaning a word has is the meaning we assign to it. There are some words that are so elastic we can stretch them to mean whatever it is we want them to mean. My British friends love the word “brilliant.” When I use this word I refer to something completely extraordinary or smart and amazing. They could use it to describe their most recent bowel movement. To many Brits, nearly every underwhelming feat is overwhelmingly brilliant which is, uh, well, not so brilliant—if you ask me. Comedian Louis CK has a spot-on bit about our incorrect use of the words “starving” and “hilarious” which IS absolutely hilarious…sorry Louis.
- No two people share the identical meaning for the identical word. Like the words described above, each of us share a sometimes ever-so-slightly nuanced version of the same word. If I tell you I have a big dog, this could mean a large canine but that could mean St. Bernard big or German Shepherd big. Or it could mean eating a big, fat frankfurter with mustard. Or, hell, according to my students it could mean a horny guy….but then it would be dawg or Dogg, I guess. Concepts such as rich, poor, hungry and ill, for example, are so vague as to mean nothing on their own accord. My rich could be another man’s poor.
- Meaning is found in people, not in words. For a fascinating speech on the use of the cursed “N-Word” you must check out Marlita Hill’s 1999 award- winning presentation. As she observes, it is the meaning behind the word that matters, not the word itself. In regards to the popular 1970’s series Roots, she observes the overuse of the word nigger, yet contends, given the context of the movie, the script demands it must remain that way. She says, “Does the slave master have to keep using that word – over and over again – I mean, couldn’t he just had said: “I’m gonna rape your wife and kill you – you god damn n-word. I hate n-words.” Get it? The meaning was hateful and any attempt toward a euphemism would have been greatly misguided and ineffective. The opposite can be true as well. I could utter a politically correct word with vitriol and hate in my voice. Meanings matter, not words.
- Words are ultimately incapable of conveying the precise message of our meaning. I can hear it now, “But wait Jimmy, you are using words right now. You are a hypocrite.” Yes, I am using words at this very moment because it is the best tool we have for expressing meaning –and I would drink water off my front lawn or out of my toilet bowl if that were my only choice for hydration. Of course I would launch into my belief expressing the importance of nonverbal communication as a means to determine meaning, yet that is a different blog for a different day.
I personally have been reprimanded more than once for using a term I believed was both sensitive and appropriate only to be shamed regardless of my loving and supportive intention. So I could not give Bill Maher a more boisterous “AMEN” when, on his recent HBO Real Time show, he criticized actor Michael Keaton for profusely apologizing when gave the wrong title for a movie he was discussing.
“Cue the outrage, cue the retraction,” Maher said, then quoted part of Keaton’s apology—with crocodile tears added: “I screwed up. It makes me feel so badly that people feel badly and if someone feels badly that’s all that matters.”
“No,” said Maher returning to his own voice. “That’s not all that matters. In fact, things like this don’t matter at all. What matters is that while you self-involved fools were policing the language at the kids’ choice awards, a madman talked his way into the White House. What matters is that while liberals were in a contest to see who could be the first to call out fat-shaming, the Tea Party has been busy taking over schools boards.”
Maher then advised Hollywood liberals to “stop protecting your virgin ears” and pay more attention to what was happening (in so many words) behind them.
Regardless of one’s politics or love/hate of Trump or conservative school boards, if any of you know me AT ALL, you know I absolutely love it when a person is able to criticize his/her own side when something is believed to be wrong or misguided. The world would be a much saner place if we all could practice such objective and critical impartiality.
The point is clear…when it comes to language and politics in general, it is a good idea to not major on the minors and minor on the majors.
So people, can we please take our language with a grain of salt? I will not be offended if you call me Jim, James or that crazy Hungarian for that matter.
So have at it word police, whatcha got for me?
I know you all could argue with me on this one. Brilliantly, I’m sure. 🙂